Nearly everyone has an airline horror story: Delayed flights, missed connections, inedible meals, lost luggage. But flying has never been safer or more affordable, unless you’re a dog. Nevertheless grumpy and grousing flyers should count their blessings.
On the other hand, there’s United Airlines. The Chicago-based carrier, America’s third largest by revenue, is the author of two celebrated incidents that within the space of a year set the standard for seriously dumb blunders. They’ll be using these examples in public-relations school for years to come of how to drive customers away.
Last year a passenger, a physician, was evicted from a United flight from Louisville to Chicago by his feet, his head bumping the floor of the plane as he was dragged up the aisle, all because he declined to give up the seat he had duly paid for. United had overbooked the flight, the next flight between the two cities was not until the next day, and some passengers are apparently more equal than others on United. Too bad for the airline, but an outraged passenger caught the harsh “involuntary de-boarding situation,” as United’s public-relations flacks called it, on cell-phone camera and the video of the battered and bloodied de-boarded passenger “went viral.”
Just when the airline thought its public-relations headache was vanishing from the public consciousness (if not the public conscience), United had another nightmare this week. On United Flight 1284 from Houston to New York, a passenger flying with her children and a small French bulldog named Kokito was required, over her spirited protests, to put the dog in an overhead luggage bin for a 3-1/2 hour flight.
The passenger, Catalina Robledo, traveling with her daughter and infant son, had carried Kokito aboard in a crate, and a stewardess insisted she put it in an overhead compartment. The passenger resisted. “We were like, ‘It’s a dog! It’s a dog!'” Mrs. Robledo’s daughter told a television interviewer. “And [the stewardess] said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you still have to put it up there.'” Mrs. Robledo offered to carry Kokito, not yet a year old, on her lap. The stewardess still insisted the dog had to go in the luggage bin. Kokito, overheated and soon out of oxygen, died sometime during the flight.
“My mother took him out, and he was dead,” the daughter recalled, sobbing. “She’s like, ‘He died — died!’ And he didn’t wake up she hit his chest so he could breathe, but he wouldn’t move.” United offered a refund of the family’s tickets, and the $125 the passenger paid to carry their dog on board.
United Airlines apparently cannot afford to hire public-relations people who actually finished public-relations school, where he (or she) would have learned that abusing children and dogs is a loud and eloquent no-no. Stuffing a dog in an overhead bin must be against company policy, available on a page deep in the back of a dusty employee manual, but is apparently rarely read at United. Someone aboard United Flight 1284 must have thought that if it’s OK to drag a passenger up the aisle by his feet, it must be OK to smother a dog in an overhead luggage bin.
Now United has really done it. The district attorney in Houston has assigned his animal cruelty task force to investigate the incident, and two U.S. senators, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, a Republican and a Democrat respectively, have introduced legislation to prohibit putting animals in overhead luggage compartments. The bill, is the Welfare of our Furry Friends Act and naturally called WOOFF.
Kokito made noises during the journey, barking and yelping, but not a single passenger tried to assist the creature’s death agony. Interfering with a member of an airline crew is a crime, as it ought to be, but simple decency should have compelled someone to object to cruelty. If only one person had stood up to open the overhead bin, to give the dying Kokito a little air, he might not have suffered an agonizing death.
If you’re a dog like Kokito, you might look for an alternative to United. Eighteen animals died on United flights last year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, against a total of 6 on flights of all 16 other airlines monitored by the government. United Airlines, beginning with the CEO, clearly has work to do. Only last week a German Shepherd dispatched to Kansas landed in Tokyo instead. But it did arrive alive.
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